Book Review: Of Games and God

Of Games and God front cover

For many years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how video games fit into my Christian faith. Certainly there are many aspects of video games that would seem contrary to the faith. Violence is often callous and gratuitous. Sexuality is prominently on display in most M-rated games. And there’s no denying that video games take a lot of resources to enjoy, both money and time. I often wonder, if Jesus returned and found me sitting on the couch playing Final Fantasy, what would his reaction be? Would He be disappointed that I wasn’t doing something more constructive to further His kingdom? Or would He tell me to stick in Mario Kart instead so we could race against each other?

So it was with great interest that I picked up Kevin Schut‘s new(ish) book, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (2013). Schut earned his PhD in communication studies and is currently an associate professor at Trinity Western University. As I recently earned my PhD in communication as well (and teach a class about video games), Schut seems like the sort of kindred spirit I needed to engage with to really answer my questions about faith and video games.

Schut’s purpose for writing the book is straightforward. He writes in Chapter 1:

This book is about helping the Christian community find a balanced approach to computer and video games–and also, I hope, a little about helping people outside the Christian community understand some of the issues related to faith and games. (p. 2)

He sums up his intent by saying:

The cultural debate about video games is part of a long discussion about the nature and value of technology. I believe my call as a Christian is to engage video games and their surrounding culture, gain critical understanding of them, and help transform them. This book is mostly about the second step–gaining critical understanding. (p. 12)

Contents of the book

Excluding the intro and outro chapters, the book covers eight topics:

  1. Understanding what video games are (a chapter necessary for readers who have no clue what he’s talking about)
  2. An outline of common challenges faith critics raise against video games
  3. Violence in video games
  4. Video game addiction
  5. Gender roles in video games
  6. Educational video games
  7. A series of interviews with Christian game developers
  8. The social side of gaming

The first few chapters mostly set up the debate about faith and video games, identifying what people are arguing about and why questions of faith even matter when thinking about games. The real meat of the book comes in chapters 4, 5, and 6 with the evaluation of violence, addiction, and gender roles. These three topics by far breed the most controversy, even outside of faith communities. Each of these chapters requires a lot of set-up. Not only does Schut have to explain what the problem is, but he brings in academic resources about these topics to ground the discussion in fact, and he also has to describe games that epitomize these controversies. Interspersed are his own personal reflections about how his faith has been challenged by these seeming un-Christian features of video games.

From there, the second half of the book is more of a defense of the good aspects about video games. He talks about how video games are being used for education. He interviews quite a few Christians in the video game industry to understand how their faith influences the games they make. And then he ends by talking about the many vibrant online communities that develop around video games.

This book’s audience

Who exactly is this book written for? That’s a question I asked myself time and again while reading Of Games and God, and I can identify two audiences.

First, this book is for the most staunchest of religious critics who are against video games. Schut spends quite a few pages debunking various myths about video games and gamers, and he frequently talks about how new technologies are often met with skepticism in the faith community, but how over time, new technologies become accepted and Christians realize that the technology itself is not evil. The technology is amoral: how you use the technology can be good or can be sinful.

Most of the Christians I know don’t hold to these myths about video games, nor do they have a problem with video games. I know there are some ultra-conservative Christians who think video games are a complete waste of time and sinful enterprises, Christians who would never buy a single video game for their children. But I think those people might be in the minority. While this book might make some inroads with that group, I honestly think that the ultra-conservative members of the worldwide Church have more deep-rooted issues with their faith. It’s not video games they are against. They have a more elemental distrust of modern culture at large.

Second, this book is for non-academics. Schut appropriately references academic research about video games, but is very approachable and easy to read. Readers won’t get bogged down in statistics or research methodology. This book should be understandable to people without a college education.

After identifying these two audiences, I realized: this book is not for me. As an academic, and as somebody who has read the original research studies about video games, this book didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. And that’s fine. There need to be more authors like Schut who engage general audiences on these issues.

Of Games and God back cover

But what about faith?

While Of Games and God has a lot of useful information about video games and faith, intended for a general audience who knows little about video games or how they are studied, the real question is, does this book have any value as a guide to faith? While I hate to denigrate the work of another Christian, I have to point out that this book is more “Of Games” than “Of God.” Schut is not a theologian or pastor. He is not writing from the viewpoint of any specific denomination. If I’m remembering correctly, I believe he paraphrases a couple Bible verses, or at least references a handful of biblical story lines, but if you’re looking for a guide that backs up each statement about how Christians should play video games with Bible verse after Bible verse, keep looking.

The book is fairly short: eliminating the references and notes, it clocks in at just under 180 pages. There are quite a few screenshots of games throughout, so that’s not even 180 pages of solid text. Like I said, each issue that he covers requires so much set-up–explaining the controversy, explaining how the games work, explaining any research on the subject–that by the end of each chapter, there’s not much room left over to discuss matters of faith.

And this is the book’s biggest flaw. I really appreciated Schut’s frequent personal reflections about how his faith influences the types of games he plays. He discusses, for instance, that he doesn’t think that Christians can never play violent games: violent story lines can teach us much about matters of faith, even if the creators aren’t Christian. But he also says that there are some violent games he doesn’t play.

I’m not suggesting that he should provide a checklist of criteria to determine which games are compatible with the Christian faith and which are not: I think Schut would say, and I agree, that such an approach leads to legalism and doesn’t effectively address the issues at hand.

But at the very least, I was looking for some sort of practical guidelines about how the Christian faith should influence the games Christians play, or even the way Christians play video games. Christianity is a religion of the heart, and certain topics that might make some Christians stumble don’t affect other Christians. It’s not necessarily about what games we play (though you could probably make a pretty convincing argument that some games are never acceptable, like this game about rape). Rather, it’s about how our heart and faith are affected by the games we play.

Does our video game playing ever bring us closer to God, or is it just a distraction that we use to avoid communing with the Lord?

Should you read this book: I cautiously say yes. Even though this book didn’t really address any of my questions, at the very least, it got me thinking about these issues anew. In that sense, then, the book has strengthened my faith, but only in a roundabout way.

Game on,
~Dennis

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